Veena Shatrugna has campaigned vigorously against brahmanical influence on the ‘balanced diet’. She explains the politics of food that has left a legacy of abiding malnutrition
The majority in India eats meat yet why are the diets recommended in India entirely vegetarian?
The RDA (recommended dietary allowance) was calculated in laboratories by well-meaning, nationalist scientists and economists. Eminent people like C Gopalan, V M Dandekar, Nilakanth Rath and MS Swaminathan. When you do nutrition in a lab cost becomes a major factor. These were all upper class, upper caste –Brahmins, for the most part –who used their own preference for vegetarian diets to offer simple, scalable solutions to provide “adequate” calories to the vast numbers of the poor of the country. They did not understand the food culture of the poor people who ate a variety of meats from mutton to pork, rabbits, tortoises, beef, and birds, apart from a whole lot fruits, berries, tubers and eggs.
What was their prescription?
Cereals and more cereals. RDAs from the early 1960s were loaded with cereals. Nuts, oilseeds, fruits, flesh foods all went out of the window. Without our knowledge we have been practising upper caste nutritional science. What was forgotten was that people who recommended cereals were consuming adequate quantities of milk, milk products and other items like fruit and nuts as part of their own vegetarian regime.
Why was this done?
It is easier for governments to deal with cereals, to procure and distribute. But actually they were taking many short cuts. About 60-80 per cent of Indians enjoy meat but the government ignored this fact. The entire effort was directed at finding the most economical solution. So the major focus of the planners, scientists, economists was on cheap cereals and pulses as a source of not just calories but also proteins and even other nutrients. There was some lab work which showed that if cereals and pulses are consumed in a ratio of 4:1 it will improve the quality of proteins. (It is known that the best proteins are egg and milk proteins, proteins in cereal and pulse are of a poor quality.) This ratio has to be consumed in every meal. But who understands ratios? The point is the poor do not consume dal at every meal. You also have to understand cereal eaten in one meal does not wait in the body to metabolise the pulses whenever these are consumed.
Are you saying this cereal overload is responsible for malnutrition?
Some vital nutrients like good proteins, Vitamin A, Vitamin B12, and even folic acid are found largely in animal foods. Animal foods help absorption of iron present in greens, and this is important in a country where 50-85 per cent of women and children are anaemic. Vitamin B12 is found only in animal foods, not surprisingly we now have an epidemic of B12 deficiency. The over-emphasis on cereals and absence of animal foods in the diet spills into the middle and upper classes too, and excess of this has contributed to obesity and related chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension. The prevalence of multiple minerals deficiency can also be traced to a cereal overload. There was a time when doctors used to advise the sick, specially TB patients, to have beef. Not anymore because of the politics, even though beef is legitimate food.
According to UNICEF, a proper diet for children should include milk and eggs to provide good quality proteins. They don’t get it. That’s a reason for widespread stunting in India. Children need this for basic structural growth up to 5 years of age and even later. I am not suggesting that vegetarians should be forced to eat meat but people should be told what the best options are and then make their dietary choices.
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